Tuesday Talk*: Canceling George Washington

Charles Blow has a point.

On the issue of American slavery, I am an absolutist: enslavers were amoral monsters.

People often try to explain this away by saying that the people who enslaved Africans in this country were simply men and women of their age, abiding by the mores of the time.

But, that explanation falters. There were also men and women of the time who found slavery morally reprehensible. The enslavers ignored all this and used anti-black dehumanization to justify the holding of slaves and the profiting from slave labor.

While it’s true that different norms existed in different times, it’s hard, no impossible, to argue that there was any time when owning slaves wasn’t, per se, wrong. Just because you legally could didn’t mean it was acceptable. And you know who owned slaves?

Some people who are opposed to taking down monuments ask, “If we start, where will we stop?” It might begin with Confederate generals, but all slave owners could easily become targets. Even George Washington himself.

To that I say, “abso-fricking-lutely!”

You can’t fault his logic, as far as it goes. Slavery is reprehensible. Washington owned slaves. Washington was reprehensible. But are there other factors to be taken into account?

We’re at another one of those peculiar moments where we’ve become obsessed with race. It is, of course, something worthy of our most serious concern, but is it the only concern? For some, the answer is “abso-fricking-lutely!” Is that the end of the discussion?

Slave owners should not be honored with monuments in public spaces. We have museums for that, which also provide better context. This is not an erasure of history, but rather a better appreciation of the horrible truth of it.

Which history are we talking about, the 1619 version which predicates the existence of the United States on the perpetuation of slavery, the “whitewashed” history that largely ignored slavery in favor of the glorious revolution against taxation without representation, or whatever history exists in between?

Like it or not, George Washington, slave-owner, was the Father of our Country. Jefferson, slave-owner and rapist, was the Father of the Constitution Declaration of Independence. Are they worthy of honor for the good they did, or best relegated to museums for the terminally awful? What becomes of America without them? What becomes of America, or the Constitution, if we lose our Founding Fathers to our recognition of their being amoral monsters?

Some would argue that we can manage both, to recognize their contributions while also recognizing their flaws. But if Blow is right, can owning slaves be trivialized as a mere flaw compared with the things they contributed otherwise?

At this moment in time, with heated, if not overheated, outrage over racism, there is a not insignificant group of Americans prepared to end our national adoration of our Founding Fathers, and our appreciation of what they did to form a new republic. What are we without our history, the ideals behind our founding? Do we put Washington’s statues into a museum? Do we change the name of the capital district, the state. And if Washington goes, surely the lesser figures of similar fault go with him.

Or do we accept the premise that our Founding Fathers, our first president included, engaged in a horrible wrong by owning slaves, and yet accept that his contributions to the creation of the United States of America are sufficiently critical to our existence to nonetheless put it aside and erect a statue in his honor? If race is our primary, our only, focus, this can’t be allowed, for as Blow argues, Washington’s ownership of slaves cannot be waived away.

Without Washington, Jefferson, our constitutional rights and our shared history, what is the United States about? Our national sense of existence might well be based on a lie, a willing ignorance of the role slavery played in our formation and maintenance, but was that all there was, all we are? Can we both honor these flawed fathers who gave us our national identity while condemning their heinous sin? Can we compare the founding of a nation, the winning of a revolution, the creation of a Constitution, with the ownership of human beings, and somehow arrive at an acceptable trade-off?

*Tuesday Talk rules apply.

42 thoughts on “Tuesday Talk*: Canceling George Washington

    1. delurking

      Since it’s Tuesday Talk…

      We made it from living in caves to the fabulous modern society you see around you. Nearly 100% of the people who contributed to all of that human advancement also held views and did things that were reprehensible. Certainly, nearly 100% of them were racists, in the traditional sense of believing that some races are inherently better than others. Certainly nearly 100% of them were against equality for gay and lesbian people. Certainly nearly 100% of them did not support freedom of religion. An easy heuristic for whom to honor is simply, “if this person had died as a child, what would have been different in his/her lifetime?” If Jefferson had died as a child the way the United States formed would likely have been dramatically different, but the history of slavery in his lifetime would likely not have been changed significantly.

      Intellectuals in the African-American community should be careful what they wish for. In the early 00s when states were passing state constitutional amendments banning gay marriage, the African-American community consistently polled as being the most opposed to gay equality, with the numbers among churchgoing African-Americans being particularly stark: 80% opposed. Even now, support for gay equality is dramatically lower among African-Americans than the national average. Shall we eliminate public statues of (racial) civil rights pioneers if they held abhorrent beliefs about gay or transgender people?

      Reply
      1. Guitardave

        Back in the day, when busting balls among friends, one had a funny twist on the ‘… nobody’s perfect’ reply.
        He’d say, “Hey, take it easy, look what they did to the last perfect man”

        Reply
  1. George P Purcell Jr

    I think this is a time for consequentialism.

    We are a diverse and pluralistic state. The only thing we have that binds us is the concept of a shared identity through the history of the Constitution and the Founders. It is literally what makes us Americans.

    If we destroy these symbols, and destroy that identity (because that is what will occur), it is extremely unlikely a new and unifying identity can be created. Instead, the country will shatter along geographic lines and fracture along lines of race and ethnicity. The United States is likely to end as a political entity should that occur.

    And remember this–many people at the root of this project believe the US is a uniquely malign force in the world. So that’s the objective.

    Reply
    1. LocoYokel

      This would make Russia and China, among others, extremely happy. Right up until the Chinese realized that all they debt they hold is now void with no way to recover. I bet they’d still be happy overall with that outcome.

      Reply
  2. Sandia

    I’m not sure where Charles Blow can possibly go in this world to avoid this sin of slavery. I believe the only continent on this planet that doesn’t have a history of slave holding is Antarctica. And with that – I can’t prove that the Emperor Penguins don’t engage in this practice either.

    Reply
  3. B. McLeod

    Naturally Blow will also be on board for demonizing the evil blacks who owned black slaves. As far as the founders and other slave owners (including, briefly, U.S. Grant), Blow is happy enough to benefit from what they have handed down to him. Blow is like the 16-year-old who gets a new BMW for her birthday, then bitches at her parents because it isn’t the right color. If it bothers him, he should go found his own country.

    Reply
  4. a constitutional historian

    Enjoy your blog immensely, but: Jefferson had nothing to do with the Constitution — he was in France at the time and not much of a fan of what he was hearing about it, by letter, from his friend James Madison (the *real* “father of the Constitution”). Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, a fact that is certainly more ironic than the father of the Constitution also owning slaves: the Declaration extols freedom, equality, and the inalienable rights of man, while the original Constitution protected slavery in multiple ways — which is why abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison called it “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell.”

    Reply
    1. SHG Post author

      I’ve already been rightfully corrected once, but I deserve it at least twice. Thank you for correcting my egregious error. I’m so ashamed.

      Reply
      1. The Real Kurt

        It’s what is sometimes known as a “thinko” – somewhat analogous to a typo.

        It happens, and is usually embarrassing.

        But at least it’s not a Spoonerism…

        The Real Kurt

        Reply
  5. PseudonymousKid

    We’re all products of slavers and slaves. History sucks and huge portions of it were much more terrible to live in than now. Being critical of founding fathers is ok; it’s a sign of progress and the inching forward of humanity, I hope. Let’s ride this train to the extreme and knock down Independence Hall while we’re at it. It’s a shrine to slavery and rape like most everything else.

    I’ll spare you the “end is nigh” crap except to say the American experiment might be over.

    I also really want to be hopeful that we can put the founders in context and condemn their bad acts while also seeing the progress they made. They didn’t want to bow to a king. Can’t we all dig that?

    Reply
  6. Bob S

    If a man says “you should be chaste” while running amok to cathouses, he’s a hypocrite. The idea of chastity (right or wrong, it’s just a gd example) is not without merit simple because a hypocrite voiced it.

    The ideals that these men had, that we’ve built upon and continue to strive to meet, have a life separate from their creators. Washington turned around and shit on his own voiced ideals in short order to quell tax protests too.

    The value, I think, is purely in the ideas. Put the constitution in more public spaces, engrave the DOI on an obelisk where a likeness of J Farnsworth once stood. Give us a faceless minuteman rather than a recognizable and flawed icon to fight over

    Societies have a always raised monuments to persons of great impact. Many love to refer to proverbs 22:28 with great gravitas, but simply something has always been done a certain way is not a sole reason to continue, lacking further reasonable support.

    I have to ask myself, because I have no firsthand experience, “how must it feel, to pass daily by a visage that says to me personally ‘you are not welcome here’”. I imagine it’s not pleasant, and it’s valued weighed against that is….. what?

    Put them in museums. The public space must necessarily evolve over time as does the fabric of the public.

    Reply
    1. SHG Post author

      As a young Jewish lad, I went to school in December with a lovely creche out front. It never occurred to me that this was an issue, since most people were Christian, this was their holiday, and why shouldn’t they be allowed to celebrate? I never felt unwelcome. It never occurred to me that the majority of my classmates, lovely people on the whole, shouldn’t be able to enjoy their holiday.

      I came to love the Christmas season, by the way, because of the peace and “good will toward man” aspect. Sure, I heard the “Jews killed Jesus” stuff, but none of my Christian friends were anything but nice to me. And I still got to light Hanukkah candles. Their creche took nothing away from me.

      But then, that’s how I felt. Other people feel differently, I guess.

      Reply
  7. Jay

    I would note two things:

    1. There is a book out called “You never Forget Your First” that tells a remarkably different story of George Washington than the one we erect statues to. It may be that the fellow we have been making statues for never really existed.

    2. Thomas Jefferson’s vision for America was solitary families on large farms who have a lot of autonomy. The vast consensus is that his vision did not bear out. While Jefferson’s ideas are an important part of history, it is frankly odd that we do not revere Madison* or Hamilton* more.

    *Madison also owned slaves, and Hamilton had dealings in slave trading. So. Guess we have to get rid of everybody after all.

    Reply
    1. SHG Post author

      That’s the weird thing about history, Jay. When decisions were made about whom to honor, it was made by the people alive at the time. They made their choices, just as some want to unmake their choices today. As for banker Hamilton, pretty much nobody liked him until he was reinvented on Broadway.

      Reply
  8. angrychiatty

    The Confederation, and everyone associated with it, stood for a single principle: white supremacy. Therefore all works with confederates as the subject must be eliminated. We can start with the public statues. These statues do not belong in a public museum, either. Confederate works have no place anywhere in public, including the public libraries. Why should we tolerate books or biographies that glorify these people and their cause? Unless a particular book is devoted entirely to explaining how the subject stood for white supremacy, it needs to go. If you support removal of public statues, but you do not support removal of ALL of these works from ALL public places, then you are a proponent of white supremacy, period. Oh, I’m wrong? Says who? What’s the defining principle that establishes books can stay if statues must go? Whats the defining principle that says statues not okay in public square but okay in public museum? I am sick and tired of these “half measure” people who aren’t willing to go the distance in ridding the world of these white supremacist works.

    Reply
    1. Skink

      I’m not sure if your reference to “Confederation” is to the Articles or the Confederacy. However, your opening conclusion is wrong as to both. That renders the rest of what you say gibberish.

      Reply
    2. Bryan Burroughs

      Why stop at museums and books? According to these folks, this country was literally founded on slavery and white supremacy. Why should this country even exist any longer?

      Reply
    3. Richard Kopf

      angrychiatty,

      I assume your comment is not satire. If it was satire, I respectfully suggest you missed the mark. If it is not satire, then, my dear sir, you are even less grounded than Brother Blow.

      As for me, I’m not in favor of moving or getting rid of anything–including statues or books–that brings to mind slavery. Slavery is a raw and painful fact of our history including the sad zinc statues erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy. We should continue to be reminded of the practice and its aftermath without attempts to sanitize it, and that is particularly true in public places like square or libraries.

      By the way, your suggestion about books reminds me of something I cannot forget. Since I trace my lineage to Germany, perhaps you will understand my particular disdain for the destruction of “offensive” books.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yHzM1gXaiVo

      All the best.

      RGK

      Reply
  9. phv3773

    If you cancel George Washinton, what creation story are you going to use to explain the United States?

    Reply
  10. Bryan Burroughs

    I find it interesting that those who say “this statue belongs in a museum where it can be shown with its proper context” never seem to say what museum or how that context should be provided. I suspect any museum (new or existing) which is proposed would be vehemently opposed by these same people, on the grounds that such a museum exhibit would be glorifying these horrible people. It truly is about erasing the parts of history that we don’t like.

    Reply
    1. B. McLeod

      The Museum of Deplorables. A collection of statues through which docents will lead tours of condemnation. Spoiled eggs and rotting fruit and vegetables will be on sale in the lobby.

      Reply
  11. Curtis

    The first documentation of slavery was in Sumer in 3500 BC. The first country to ban slavery was Lithuania in 1588. That means for 5000 years it was the norm. We can pretend that all those people were evil but if any of were born in those times, we would probably have wanted to own slaves. The ability to walk in other peoples shoes is lacking these days.

    Reply
    1. jay-w

      I will take your word that the first documentation of slavery is from 3500 BC, but I would bet that it actually goes back much further — at least to the dawn of the agricultural revolution at about 8000 or 10,000 BC.

      In fact, if we could get into a time machine and go back 40 or 50 thousand years, we would probably find humans and Neanderthals enslaving each other every chance they got.

      Reply
  12. Pedantic Grammar Police

    The divisiveness isn’t a side effect. It is the purpose of this entire exercise. Divide and conquer.

    Who finances BLM? Who pays for the pallets of bricks? The same people who financed the “caravan.” The same people who have been working on dividing us for decades.

    Reply
  13. Rxc

    When the only tool you have is a hammer, you treat every problem, and every person associated with it, like a nail.

    Reply
  14. cthulhu

    Shakespeare:
    “The evil that men do lives after them, and the good is oft interred with their bones. So let it be with Caesar.”

    Of course, Mark Antony was trying to gin up the crowd with that speech…

    Reply
    1. SHG Post author

      For almost a quarter of a millennium, GW has been a venerated figure in American history. His good wasn’t interred with his bones, but is reflected in the statues and places named after him. Are you willing to accept Nikole Hannah-Jones as your belated Mark Anthony?

      Reply
  15. Mark Brooks

    Dear Mr. Greenfield

    In 2013, Volkswagen had a Super Bowl ad which depicted an American man of fair complexion trying to speak like a Jamaican. Mr. Blow for some reason found it offensive, yet as far as I am aware, he has no connections to Jamaica. His words were “ I don’t like it all. It’s like blackface with voices. I don’t like that ”, to Soledad O’Brien on CNN.

    Perhaps Mr. Blow should have asked Jamaicans what they thought of the ad before he “jumped in”.
    I have no idea if he saw or heard the reaction that came from Jamaica. The reaction here was of immense support, everyone spoke of it with praise and loved the ad. The then Minister of Tourism and Entertainment, Dr. Wykeham McNeill said ” I urge persons all across the globe to do exactly what the commercial portrays, which is to tap into your inner Jamaican and ‘get happy.”

    Not only would I suggest this to Mr. Blow, but he should consider the words of the iconic Bob Marley,
    ” Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, None but ourselves can free our minds “.

    Kind Regards
    Mark Brooks
    Malvern PO
    St. Elizabeth
    Jamaica

    Reply
    1. SHG Post author

      Blow presumes himself well-positioned to decide for the people of Jamaica, even if they’re not wise enough to decide for themselves. Irie.

      Reply
  16. Brady Curry

    Who will be the first to setup a kiosk at Mount Rushmore selling chisels and hammers so that George Washington can be removed before anymore feelz are hurt? All proceeds can be divided amongst Native Amercians and all those upset over slavery.

    I’m sure there are others upset with Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln for some reason that would also like to “chip in” and help by removing them. All feelz must be respected.

    Reply

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